I don’t think that implicitly acknowledging that some destruction is required for life and/or the greater good (“needful”), while other destruction serves nothing but self-aggrandizement (“wanton”) is the same as giving Exxon carte blanche to build a pipeline across my backyard.

It might. There are always winners and losers. But I think that equating “needful” with “whatever those in power want to do” skips an entire universe of social process.

To combine this with another idea I’ve been slowly chewing on… Perhaps a better way to look at the difference between “needful” and “wanton” is in terms of “redemption”. Not in the religious sense, but in an ethical one. The very act of living – of eating, finding a place to live, etc. – requires me to visit suffering upon the world. The ethical question I face is not, then, “how do I prevent suffering?” Rather, it is “how do I redeem the suffering my existence creates?”

Certainly, minimizing suffering becomes important in this analysis, if just because it can make the problem tractable. But there’s something deeper here: What is the meaning of what I do? If I must kill to live, then that creates a moral burden that what I do with my life must make that death count for something.

So, perhaps the difference between “needful” and “wanton” is in the answer to the question “to what higher purpose does this serve?”

Perhaps an oil pipeline serves a higher purpose. Perhaps it does not. That’s a “gray area” I’m trying to acknowledge.

But it is hard to understand how the destruction of an ancient and transitory geologic marvel for no other reason than personal inability or unwillingness to do one’s job counts as anything other than “wanton”.